Most of us have heard various pundits declare the following axiom as undisputed truth: “The science is settled.”
But is this statement really an oxymoron? Can there really be such a thing as “settled science”?
Well actually, yes.
Let’s take a brief historical look at some abstract thinkers from the past who thought their ideas should never be challenged. Here’s also a review of those who dominated the thinking of their times and how their concepts were “settled.”
Let’s start with the ancients. The Greek scholar Pythagoras was brilliant at calculating geometry. Every college-prep high school kid has heard of his ageless theorem. Pythagoras certainly believed the science was settled for him. But around the same time in 450 B.C., a philosopher named Zeno stood up and challenged various ideas that the great guru of geometric equations had to offer.
Zeno’s thinking is still discussed in quantum physics classes today. One of his concepts is known as “Zeno’s Paradox.” An example of this occurs while a running human is studied. The man’s actions must be broken down into their smallest frames until he’s no longer moving, thus creating a dilemma: How can movement be studied when there is no longer movement?
When Pythagoras could not answer some of the challenges Zeno issued on his theoretical positions, the geometric giant simply had Zeno executed, thus settling the science for his time.
Fast forwarding to the Renaissance era. Everyone has heard of Galileo Galilei, the famous mathematician and astronomer. He questioned the beliefs of the intellectuals during his age regarding their rejection of heliocentrism — the astronomical model in which the sun is the center of the solar system. The vast majority of astronomers disagreed with this premise, based on what they thought was a missing observed stellar parallax (measurement of star distances and their relative positions).
As a result of this “heresy,” Galileo was investigated by the Roman Inquisition of 1615. They concluded that heliocentrism was untrue. Consequently, the forward-thinking scientist was forced to recant his conclusions and spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Once again, the science was settled, but this time by a 17th-century version of “peer review.”
By the late 1800s, Lord Kelvin and most of the physicists of his day believed that there was nothing more to be considered when it came to their views on thermodynamics, heat and energy. But then, a pesky little patent clerk named Albert Einstein came along and published his own studies — demonstrating that Kelvin and his crew had totally missed the mark. Einstein alone clearly showed that the science of his day was far from settled.
Later, when Einstein would not go along with the scientific views of Nazis, the regime considered settling the science by whacking the unique thinker on his return to the “vaterland.” But fortunately, in 1933, Einstein decided to immigrate to the United States before any succinct plans for his elimination could be formulated.
Also in the 1930s, top-rated mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead published their be-all and end-all views on symbolic logic in a work called “Principia Mathematica” (pretty classy title, eh?). But then, Kurt Godel entered the picture, proving that Russell and Whitehead were not only wrong in their thinking, but that their conclusions were actually impossible. Thankfully, in this case, no one proposed “neutralizing” Dr. Godel.
I’m sure all of us can provide many examples of faulty “settled science,” but I think the point is made. Scientific conclusions are never settled, but are on-going processes of discovery that can change as new data are acquired and reviewed.
They only way things become “settled” is to eliminate those who question the status quo — either by shunning, intimidating, ridiculing, or as practiced in some parts of the world, executing them. Ironically, this method of settling does not fit within the definition of what is truly science. The myth of “settled science” continues to this day for a variety of political and social causes.
In the meantime, we could certainly resolve today’s controversial issues by repeating human history and eliminating those who logically question the beliefs, hypotheses and conclusions of the majority. But that would seen just too barbaric in our enlightened age to ever consider such an option — or would it?
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.